Athens-Clarke and Oconee join lawsuit against opioid manufacturers

Athens-Clarke and Oconee counties have joined a growing list of Georgia counties in suing nearly two dozen manufacturers and distributors of opioids, seeking to hold the companies responsible for their role in the country’s opioid epidemic.

The lawsuits, filed earlier this month in the U.S. District Court in Athens, allege that manufacturers have “aggressively pushed highly addictive, dangerous opioids, falsely representing to doctors that patients would only rarely succumb to drug addiction” and “aggressively advertised and persuaded doctors” to prescribe opioids to their patients and turn them “into drug addicts for their own corporate profit.”

According to the Georgia Prevention Project, Georgia ranks 11th in the country with the most prescription opioid overdoses, and of the 1,426 Georgians who died of drug overdoses in 2016, 982 of them were due to opioids. Nationally, 91 people die each day from an opioid overdose.

The Athens law firm of Blasingame, Burch, Garrard and Ashley is representing both Athens-Clarke and Oconee counties in the matter—at no cost to taxpayers—and filed the same lawsuit on behalf of Candler County last month. Fulton and DeKalb counties have filed similar lawsuits as well. The firm also expects to file similar lawsuits in the coming weeks on behalf of other Georgia counties and hospitals.

“Overdose deaths, ER visits and hospital stays from opioid addiction keep going up,” BBGA partner Patrick Garrard said in a statement. “With this lawsuit, we hope to help stop the opioid epidemic and secure the resources that cities, counties and hospitals need to combat it.”

Among the companies named as defendants are Purdue Pharma LP, which distributes OxyContin; Cephalon Inc. and its owner, Teva Pharmaceuticals USA Inc., which make and sell Actiq and Fentora; and Endo Health Solutions Inc., which sells Percodan and Percocet.

The court document notes that between 2006–2016, Athens-Clarke recorded a high of 130.2 opioid prescriptions per 100 people and averaged 116.8 opioid prescriptions per 100 people. In Oconee those numbers are 76.2 and 67.37, respectively.

“We are deeply troubled by the opioid crisis, and we are dedicated to being part of the solution,” John Puskar, Purdue Pharma’s director of public affairs, said in a statement. “As a company grounded in science, we must balance patient access to FDA-approved medicines, while working collaboratively to solve this public health challenge… We vigorously deny these allegations and look forward to the opportunity to present our defense.”

But in a surprise move days later, Purdue Pharma said it will cease marketing opioid drugs to doctors, according to the Associated Press. The company said it eliminated more than half its sales staff and will no longer send sales representatives to doctors’ offices to discuss opioid drugs, the AP said.

“Teva is committed to the appropriate use of opioid medicines, and we recognize the critical public health issues impacting communities across the U.S. as a result of illegal drug use, as well as the misuse and abuse of opioids that are available legally by prescription,” wrote Kaelan Hollon, senior director of communications at Teva Pharmaceutical Industries.

The counties allege that the defendants knew opioids were addictive and potentially deadly, but they pushed doctors to not only prescribe, but over-prescribe them anyway. “Defendants acted with actual malice, wantonly and oppressively,” the lawsuit alleges. “Defendants acted with conscious disregard to the rights of others and/or in a reckless, wanton, willful or gross manner. Defendants acted with a prolonged indifference to the adverse consequences of their actions and/or omissions. Defendants acted with a conscious disregard for the rights and safety of others in a manner that had a great probability of causing substantial harm.”

The plaintiffs are seeking an “abatement fund” from the companies “for the purposes of abating the opioid nuisance”—damages caused by the epidemic, including costs for providing medical care, treatment, counseling, rehabilitation and providing care for children whose parents suffer from opioid-related disability, and costs associated with law enforcement related to the epidemic.

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